What should’ve been a fifteen-minute sprint back into Arkeh:na stretched out into a half-hour slog. The cave-in had destroyed the quickest route back into Arkeh:na’s main levels. The main tunnles, buried. The shortcuts, destroyed. It kept Cameron in the dark about the Community’s safety and lessened Avery’s chance of being saved.
They felt more broken than the caves they’d just destroyed. What were they thinking? “Spend one day outside Arkeh:na?” Had they become a heretic like their Fader? No wonder the caves had tried to kill them. They deserved it for thinking such thoughts.
But Avery didn’t. She didn’t deserve any of this.
When they finally reached the main layer, coughing and wheezing on the poisoned air, they entered into a world of disorder. The ville was abandoned. Arkeh:nen ran about with no direction. Pieces of the wall and ceiling were crumbling and the Centrum had lost one of its pillars, leaving their Community tilted.
The wall sharing the silkworm huts and Grandmoeders’ Den had collapsed. No light from the outside came through, but a steady slope had slipped into the Community. The school beside it had barely been saved. Moeders and Faders gathered as many children as they could away from the debris. Excavators helped dig out the affected huts. The rest watched on, helpless.
Two workers pulled out a struggling Maywood. She’d lost her cane and was trying frantically to get back to the silkworms.
“Get him! Get—Basil!”
Cameron stopped running. They’d tried so hard to be the perfect Arkeh:nen. They loved their people. They respected the Earth. Why was fate punishing them so harshly? Did they truly deserve this much pain?
A woman came out of the ruined hut coughing. She was bleeding from her head and had Basil draped over her shoulders.
“Moeder,” Cameron breathed out.
Their Moeder laid Basil on his back, careful about his right leg. It didn’t look broken, but it was bruised and puffy from an injury.
Basil moaned and covered his face in shame. “I’m sorry. I went back for Maywood, but I couldn’t find her.”
“It’s okay,” Cameron’s Moeder said. “Just stay calm.”
Around Cameron, whispers spread.
“How did this happen?”
“Is anyone else hurt?”
“How’re the Grandmoeders?”
Cameron’s knees buckled. They had no proof that they were the one responsible for the cave-in, but the last two collapses had been because of them. Once because they’d excavated a tunnle wrong, the next, absolutely random, just outside of their own den.
They covered their mouth with both hands. Just when they thought they’d pass out, Avery’s screams rang through their head, reminding them of why they were here.
“M-Moeder!” They ran up to her. “Moeder, Avery’s in the tunnles. She’s buried. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to dig her out, but if we don’t get her out soon—” They doubled over in pain. They coughed out something dark, maybe blood, maybe dirt, before their Moeder touched their shoulder.
They tried controlling themselves before acknowledging her kindness. She didn’t touch them often.
“Where is she?” she asked.
“In the caves.”
They swallowed back hard. Their Moeder hadn’t taken their hand off of them. “Near the oak tree in the northeast corner. I just wanted to show it to her.”
“You brought her into the caves?” one person asked.
“She’s Autrean,” another said.
“Not everyone can be accepted by the caves.”
“Do you realize what you’ve done?”
Cameron could no longer bear it and slipped to their knees in humiliation. Boulders larger than all of Arkeh:na compacted them into the worthless, magic-less gemme they were. Born to a Moeder psychic, deserted by a heretic Fader, and disowned by the very gemmes they loved, they belonged nowhere near the home they destroyed.
A hush fell upon the crowds. Cameron’s Moeder finally took her hand off of them as she rose to see something above the crowd. Cameron stayed on their knees where they belonged until their undeserved curiosity overpowered them.
All five Grandmoeders stood accounted for. The smallest one, Grandmoeder Geneva, stood in front of them all, her chin held high. Their attendants, with their wide, unblinking eyes, had their arms ready in case any of them fell.
Cameron, as well as every other Arkeh:nen in earshot, bowed their heads. Sweat dripped off Cameron’s nose as they waited to hear their punishment.
Grandmoeder Geneva spoke first. “Who here is hurt?”
“Basil has a broken ankle,” Cameron’s Moeder said, and Cameron almost cried. Broken ankles couldn’t be fixed. If untreated, they could’ve ended up as amputations. “We also have two psychics unresponsive as well as a handful of artisans who’ve been hurt. The numbers aren’t exact. So far, no one’s been killed.”
Their throat tightened. Not only Avery, not only Basil, but now two psychics, an uncountable number of artisans, their own Moeder. The Grandmoeders shouldn’t have wasted their precious energy banishing them. A true Arkeh:nen would’ve climbed up to the surface and never returned again.
Their Moeder motioned for them to stand, a light tap on their back. “Tell them what you just told me.”
“You must. Think about Avery.”
“Where is she?” Grandmoeder Nai asked. “Don’t tell me she’s responsible for this.”
In a cowardly act to save themselves, Cameron almost blamed Avery for their own actions, but they couldn’t do that to her. Not now. “I went into the caves with her.”
The crowd disapproved with outcry.
“You brought her into the caves?” Grandmoeder Nai asked. “How dare you. How could you think of bringing her there?”
“She who can’t see in the dark, who has never been in our systems before, you thought she could handle that?”
Cameron covered their head. When would this end? When would they be banished? When would they be reunited with Avery again? That’s all they wanted, was her.
“We might want to take in Cameron’s side of the story before we chastise them on something that may or may not have been their fault,” Grandmoeder Geneva said.
“You can’t always take their side just because they’re your grandchild,” Grandmoeder Nai snapped. “Take responsibility for their actions.”
“No!” Cameron blurted out. “Please, don’t take responsibility for what I’ve done. This was my fault. I told her to go. I thought bad things. I’m sorry.”
Grandmoeder Geneva didn’t break eye contact with them. “I think of every Arkeh:nen as my child. I don’t choose favorites. I just want answers that’ll help move Arkeh:na forwards. Without Cameron’s side of the story, we are at a standstill, and your own grandson’s injuries will be based on nothing.”
At this, Grandmoeder Nai finally looked down at her grandson struggling to sit up with Maywood’s help. Her face softened a touch.
“Now, Cameron, tell us what happened.”
Cameron slowed down their breathing. It only made them cough. “I was showing her the sights and sounds of the caves. I brought her to the oak tree thinking she’d love it, and she did. Then we…we kissed…and I asked her to stay forever, and then the walls collapsed.” They pointed to the area on their kaart. They couldn’t stop their finger from shaking. “We weren’t doing anything wrong. We were just standing and hugging and then…”
“And the walls just collapsed here,” their Moeder said, defending them.
“Then it couldn’t have been from you alone,” Grandmoeder Geneva said. “Unless you bear the forces of an earthquake, it seems that this was just an unfortunate situation brought onto us by fate.”
“A fate that they created,” Grandmoeder Nai reminded them.
“But Avery,” Cameron said. “Grandmoeder Geneva, Avery’s trapped. She could be underneath rubble or buried or worse. I don’t know, but I—I-I—” They coughed, spit and snot jumping off of their face. When they opened their eyes, they saw a harsh amount of blood mixed in with their phlegm.
Their Moeder’s hand touched the middle of their back.
“Can you show us where she is now?” Grandmoeder Geneva asked.
Conflicting answers arose in their heart. “No, not you. Please. It’s too far away. Let me go.”
“I’ll go,” their Moeder said. “They can stay here and rest. May I take a few others?”
“…I’ll go,” an excavator said from the back of the crowd. When Grandmoeder Geneva surveyed the crowd with a wordless gaze, she pulled in a few others to volunteer.
“Wait,” Cameron said. “Please, take me with you. I know exactly where she is. It’s my fault fate has done this to her. Let me be the one to help her, please.”
Their Moeder looked over their bruises. “I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“Are you feeling better?”
They held back a cough, their esophagus burning with lies. “Yeah.”
“Then get your things and lead the way.”